Saturday, 21 May 2016

A Findochty Flett in Canada

In Imagination and Memory...

Joseph Flett was aged 27 when he sailed to North America in August 1915, 28 when his young wife and baby daughter joined him in May 1916. While he may at that time have intended to make a permanent home in Canada, circumstances decreed otherwise and he had returned to Scotland 13 years before his novel Bid for Fortune was published in 1934. The book contains several chapters set in Newfoundland where he had spent over five years. Although a work of fiction presented as an escapist adventure story, it clearly draws extensively on the author's knowledge and experience (as well as his thoughts and feelings), including some about his temporarily adopted country.

Written on May 21, 1916:
"No desire to return to Scotland", but circumstances decreed otherwise five years later
In the context of post First World War alienation and lack of prospects the four main protagonists in the novel, after a failed business venture, turn to less legal schemes for securing some kind of future for themselves. While one takes care of the main plan, to smuggle accidentally-acquired diamonds into the USA with a view to disposing of them, the other three proceed via Newfoundland to rendez-vous with him in New York. Rather than wait idly, they decide to have a go at putting another idea into practice, rum-running from the French colony of St. Pierre to the Prohibition-era dry States. Rum-running to the USA, one of them has argued, would constitute a "real service" as well as being "almost respectable":

"For the greater convenience of rum-runners and Newfoundland fishermen - they've got Prohibition even in their foggy clammy island, poor devils! - there happens... to be two bits of rock off the south coast of Newfoundland that still belong to the sensible and thirsty Républque Française... an oasis in an arid land." (Chapter 5, p.55)

Anyway: "The Americans didn't despise law-breakers; the only thing they really despised was poverty. And rum-running was by now almost a respectable industry in the States."  (Chapter 14, pp.128-9)

On board ship their fellow passengers "cursed Prohibition. It was leading the youth of the country astray... It was killing the young men and corrupting the young women." (Chapter 17, p.148)

The next morning they were swishing through slob ice, with an occasional bump and grinding into the harder hummocks. Late in the afternoon they came up to the narrows of St. John's harbour. Huge cliffs towered above the narrow channel, bare grey rock plastered white in every cranny with snow, formidably wild and desolate-looking. Wooden huts and scaffoldings of fishermen [boats] perched on shelves of rock just above the water. A grim land it looked. Passing through the narrows, they entered a calm, land-locked harbour, full of drifting ice and little anchored schooners, Christmas-toy-like in their frosted shrouds and the long icicles pendent from bow and stern and gunwales.
 ... A small fleet of sleighs awaited the landing of the passengers... A grim country. A devil of a climate. (Chapter 17, p.148-149)

These first impressions are expanded into a more elaborate description of the place (with a small sting in the tail): "A rover of the sea turned merchant... St John's achieves, too, the metropolitan air... shares in the councils of the nations. She has a parliament all of her own... active mentally, and that's the great thing... It loves to take the stranger in, in one way or the other." (Chapter 18, p.150)

The next objective was to be Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, travelling to which was possible but advised against by locals at this time of year, the advice being heeded by only one of the three: "Jimmy, listening to the proposed itinerary, ruled himself out of it. He wouldn't, deliberately and of his own free will, shove himself into such horrible discomforts. But Tommy and Jock were still of the mind to go through with it." (p.151)

Tommy and Jock decide to kit themselves out, gradually, in seamen's clothing –

Then, on pretence at first of touring the outports, they crept down the coast, from one fishing hamlet to the next... until at last, from long rubber thighboots to mackinaw and ear-flapped cap, there was naught to distinguish them outwardly from the most native of natives. The local accent, a peculiar blend of West-Country English with the Irish brogue, presented much more difficulty to Jock... Jock, they decided, would have to pass as a Cape Breton Gaelic-speaking Scotsman, in whom any variety of English, from the purest to the most broken, gives no surprise to anybody - or at least so they had gathered from their boon companions in St. John's.
From Placentia... they drifted down... Everywhere they landed they found houses that would take in the weary traveller for a dollar or two... (p.154)

After an enforced wait that turns out to be "comfortable and jolly" in Grand-Bank, Fortune Bay, "there came a morning at last, even in a Newfoundland February, when the raging seas simmered down into a sullen heave of swell."

They landed on rocks at an unfrequented part of the island...
Saint-Pierre was quiet.. The transatlantic headquarters of the French cod-fishing fleet, its busy time was over for a year, except for the occasional visit of a big French trawler and its surreptitious activities in the rum-running trade...
The cod-fishing business was not what it had been. Newfoundland long ago had done its direst to kill that trade by prohibiting the sale of Newfoundland bait to the French, and in any case the business of fishing was getting more and more into the hands of big steam-trawling companies... (p.157)

While this adventure proceeds:

Jimmy put in the three weeks' waiting at St. John's pleasantly enough. He skated on the ice-rinks; he practised snow-shoeing until he quite fancied himself as an expert; he played poker and bridge; avoided women... As soon as it was certain that Jock and Tommy had made the passage, Jimmy packed up and took sleigh for the railway station.

The journey turns out to be something of an epic one. "The train lurched and bumped... in a manner disconcerting to the novice", eliciting the reassurance that [JF does the voice
"This ain't the season yit foh upsets. Next month now, yoh go to sleep mebbe in a lowah berth and waken up in a uppah berth with the train turned right upside down"  - in which case the procedure would be to climb out by the windows, with "drifts of snow fawty feet deep sometimes" at the "tops'ils". Asked "How do you like it up here?" the attendant replies that there are drawbacks and 'vantages: "We coloured gemmen have fah moah considuation up heah, sah. But dis consumption play the devil with coloured folks up heah, sah." (p.181-182)

The same attendant breaks the news to him when they get snowed in, and the conductor confirms that nothing can be done until the storm blows itself out and the "rotary" clears a way for them, which might take weeks. There are very few passengers in the sleeper - "Only the strongest urgency could persuade anyone to do the cross-country voyage at this time of year" - and after three days of being cooped up with them Jimmy, "ready for anything, no matter how desperate, that would break the monotony", decides to set out walking. Grand Falls he reckons is only about 80 miles away; some houses are scattered along the route; he expects to find "lots of English people there, employees of Northcliffe's paper mills".  Although he goes equipped with snow-shoes and green-tinted spectacles bought from a fellow passenger, his initial optimism as he begins "to follow the line of railway telegraph posts over the deep and pathless snow" is seriously misplaced.

On the point of collapse, he is rescued by a gaunt elderly woman and then tended by her two young attractive daughters, in whom he observes "that peculiarly well-bred manner, direct and fearless, treating all as equals and none as superiors, of those brought up in the complete independence of the wilds". However (half way to Grand Falls after ten days):
The happy interlude was brief, as usual. One morning smoke was seen down the line; then came the rotary, throwing up cascades of snow before it.. [The train] did not come along until the next day. With the usual obligingness of Newfoundland trains it stopped for Jimmy's excited wavings and took him aboard. (p.204)

The remainder of the journey is more pleasant - 
Without much apparent thaw the snow had long since begun mysteriously to disappear... The first taste of spring comes sudden and sweet in the countries of the long long snows…
The barren monotony of the interior changed as they came to the West Coast to high hills and woodlands. The River Humber roared through its steep and matted gorge down to Bay of Islands, still fast and serene under six feet of ice. It was a strange sight to Jimmy to see horses and heavily laden sleighs creeping over the frozen sea.

The country had a further test of endurance in reserve - 
"... when they arrived at Port-aux-Basques, the terminus of the railway and the port of transhipment for Canada. The s.s. Kyle had already been waiting there two days, already full of passengers who had come with her direct by sea from St. John's; the gulf was full of heavy ice, now packed close and tight to the land by the in-wind that had been blowing... The usually spick-and-span mail-boat had been putting up a losing fight against overcrowding and delay... (p.206)
"Another day of dank, smelly, tedious misery... then Jimmy woke up to woke up to the throbbing of engines and the swish and grind of a ship forcing her way through ice...
Up on deck the air was dancing, the ice-fields glittering in the strong sunlight. 

Finally - 
Here was the land again, praise be! and freedom from the mob. A drink!.. He had been looking forward to it ever since he smelt that ship. Now without preparation or softening the blow was dealt to him. Nova Scotia was dry. The country of all countries that needed a drink to was down its miserable dullness was dry!
The Syrian, who had been a fellow-passenger... now proved a friend in need. Nova Scotia was dry all right; but you could get all you wanted just the same; the only real difference was that you now had to pay through the nose for it.
... In defiance of all law, Jimmy was a bit flushed and smiling when he joined the train at North Sydney that evening. (p.209)

Jimmy's farewell to Canada is not final. After the four friends are reunited and share some further adventures and difficulties, they each end up (spoiler alert) with a substantial sum of money, and the partnership is dissolved. Jimmy,'with whom the narrative has opened, also occupies the closing chapter, in which after much soul-searching and existential agonising, he diagnoses the root cause of his troubled state as "nothing but that most common of ailments, the mating fever".
He had been unhappy... ever since he had left that lonely spot in the wilds... His mind went back to that scene, visioned the snow and the lake and the little fir tree.. Suddenly young Susie's face flashed up and filled his mind...
Having been characterised as English (distancing him from Joe) and therefore prone to snobbery, he has to account for his choice of this young woman from the wilds (while remaining apparently unfazed at the prospect of an intermittently homicidal axe-wielding mother-in-law). A momentary misgiving is set aside - "Susie was not a young savage; she was a native princess in her own right... glorious and free." (pp.271-273)

Recollecting -  her mother had said there was "no keeping young girls at home nowadays"  - that "she had been thinking of going away, of leaving home; a lamb going out innocently unafraid into the jungle" (pp.275-276) he loses no more time in organising his return, "a different man", to a different experience:
The s.s.Kyle, now neat and clean enough. Port-aux-Basques, raining as usual, but this time warm muggy rain. The casual leisurely crawl of the Newfoundland train... the homely genial atmosphere that more than made up for all discomforts... No such thing as time in Newfoundland: nothing for it but to wait, as tranquilly as everybody else. (pp.277-278)
The train may be slow, but the story now skips briskly onwards to the required happy ending.

(A more thorough and critical review of the novel appears later on this blog.)

J.S.Flett, Bid for Fortune. Moray Press, Edinburgh & London, 1934
The adventures of four young men. Price 7/6 [Seven shillings and sixpence = 37.5p. 
Second-hand copies have been available on-line at different highish prices, e.g. at £35 about 12 years ago, £399 (80 years after publication), £50 without jacket (currently).]

The book sat well with its mid-1930s contemporaries in the Moray Press list
 of (would-be) popular but far from unintelligent adventure yarns.

1 comment:

  1. Local Scottish newspapers recently made available online show that Joe Flett, aged 19, had made an earlier visit to Newfoundland as representative of his father's firm, in 1907-1908. See